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2nd person perspective narratives
January 17, 2006 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Fiction usually comes in two flavours: 1st person narrative or 3rd person description. What short stories or novels have been written in 2nd person perspective (i.e. from the reader's viewpoint)? Also, are there any movies shot entirely from this angle?
posted by 0bvious to Media & Arts (63 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Choose Your Own Adventure novels.
posted by johngoren at 9:11 PM on January 17, 2006


"American Psycho" and "Fight Club," if I'm remembering correctly.
posted by occhiblu at 9:13 PM on January 17, 2006


http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/7061
posted by vacapinta at 9:14 PM on January 17, 2006


The closest thing I can think of in film is Robert Montgomery's version of Lady in the Lake. But really in that movie the viewer is Marlowe.

Man does that movie really prove why it's poor to shoot everything in that form of perspective. It's dull.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:15 PM on January 17, 2006


The problem with 2nd person perspective is that it forces the reader to play along. If the reader doesn't agree with the author, it completely throws the reader out of the story, which authors tend not to want to do. Fine for maybe a few sentences, but an entire book?
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:17 PM on January 17, 2006


devilsbrigade, you've got the right idea. 2nd person perspective virtually requires the reader to step into the identity of the protagonist. Usually, however, the protagonist has a very distinct personality that would make such virtual identification impossible. Usually but not always. Take "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. The reader actually makes a decision about what the character should do and each decision leads to a different storyline. The reader's active decision making status allows the author to write from a 2nd hand perspective, since the reader is, like a video game player, identifying himself with the protagonist.
posted by gregb1007 at 9:22 PM on January 17, 2006


"American Psycho" is written in 1st person.

I'm not sure what you mean by "are there any movies shot entirely from this angle?" From the audience's viewpoint? From the audience as a character? That would be 1st person, like (apparently) some scenees in Doom.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 9:24 PM on January 17, 2006


Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler has some second-person narrative, and it's very cleverly done.

I believe that Lady in the Lake was promoted as the truest form of first-person narrative. After all, when you read a book written in first person, you are in the narrator's head, and that's where you are in Lady in the Lake. The problem with a second-person narrative, of course, is that the obviousness of the lie is harder to work around. A book can at least engage your own imagination to do part of the work, e.g. "You suddenly do a double backflip;" a movie, being an audio and visual medium, cannot actually show you or imitate what you sound like, so talking about a second-person movie is a bit like talking about traveling in four-dimensional space. There might be a way to do it, but it's outside the scope of movies as we know them.
posted by bingo at 9:26 PM on January 17, 2006


...also, I believe that Bright Lights, Big City is written in second person, but I haven't read it.
posted by bingo at 9:27 PM on January 17, 2006


There was a Bogart film that was shot mostly from his point of view. Dark Passage? And I recall an episode of M*A*S*H being filmed the same way.

Er, not from Bogie's view. From the character's.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:30 PM on January 17, 2006


Bright Lights, Big City is famous for this, and it kind of works, but partly seems like a gimmick, done for the sake of doing it rather than because it is really the best way to present the story. I think parts of If On a Winter's Night A Traveler... were in second person, too - don't remember exactly how it fit together now, but various sections were only tangentially related...
posted by mdn at 9:30 PM on January 17, 2006


Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying is written in the second person. He pulls off this very difficult tecnique extremely well. It's a fantastic book.
posted by honeyx at 9:33 PM on January 17, 2006


For No One by The Beatles uses 2nd person to pretty great effect, I think.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 9:33 PM on January 17, 2006


uh, mdn...were you referencing my answers, or was that a bizarre coincidence?
posted by bingo at 9:36 PM on January 17, 2006


I wouldn't call it much of a coincidence; it was also the first novel I thought of when I read the question.
posted by solid-one-love at 9:39 PM on January 17, 2006


...also, I believe that Bright Lights, Big City is written in second person, but I haven't read it.

This is true. You wrote this book entirely in second person. You know this because you read it back when it was cool. ;-)
posted by frogan at 9:41 PM on January 17, 2006


solid-one-love: Which of the two novels are you talking about? Thanks for paying attention.
posted by bingo at 9:43 PM on January 17, 2006


If on a winter's night a traveler. I didn't see your short second post because of my near-blindness. I apologize for offending you.
posted by solid-one-love at 9:45 PM on January 17, 2006


Bunker 13, by Aniruddha Bahal.
posted by pmbuko at 9:51 PM on January 17, 2006


uh, mdn...were you referencing my answers, or was that a bizarre coincidence?

sorry, this no preview thing still trips me up :).
I don't think it's that bizarre a coincidence, though - I think of Bright Lights, Big City as being known for this the way A Void is known for not having any e's, honestly... And Calvino is also a pretty well known example, more so than some of the others being brought up, I think. but apologies - shoulda double checked the thread. or just posted faster...
posted by mdn at 9:58 PM on January 17, 2006


Supposedly, Robert Redford wanted to adapt Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the screen and planned to shoot the movie - except for the very end - from the point of view of the protagonist, as if his eyes were the camera lens.
posted by Clay201 at 10:00 PM on January 17, 2006


Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins is written in the second person. I couldn't read more than two pages. There's a reason not much fiction is written this way - it sucks.
posted by peep at 10:14 PM on January 17, 2006


Dark Passage is indeed the movie Astro Zombie is thinking of, but it's only shot from the character's POV for about the first third. The premise: Convict escapes, hooks up with Lauren Bacall, gets plastic surgery to alter his appearance, looks like Humphrey Bogart when the bandages come off. So the whole perspective thing is pretty much a gimmick that prevents us from seeing the pre-surgery, non-Bogie face.

Anyway, I don't know if I'd call that second person.
posted by staggernation at 10:28 PM on January 17, 2006


Aren't all epistolary novels technically second-person narratives?
posted by themadjuggler at 11:18 PM on January 17, 2006


Jeff VanderMeer's "Three Days in a Border Town" as well as a section of his Veniss Underground.
posted by Goblindegook at 11:43 PM on January 17, 2006


themadjuggler wrote: Aren't all epistolary novels technically second-person narratives?

No. Although an epistolary novel references the reader, it usually tells the story from the narrator's POV, rather than the supposed recipient.
posted by Goblindegook at 11:49 PM on January 17, 2006


This season's premiere episode of Scrubs was mostly shot from the perspective of a new intern.

I recently read a short story which uses this perspective skillfully, "Landfall" by Julie Hensley, but I can't find a copy online. If you can find a copy of Hayden's Ferry Review, Issue #32, go for it.
posted by kyleg at 11:55 PM on January 17, 2006


An episode of M*A*S*H titled"Point of View" from the seventh season was considered to be very innovative for its time. The entire episode was filmed from the perspective of a wounded soldier as he recuperated at the 4077.
posted by apple scruff at 1:43 AM on January 18, 2006


There are parts of Iain Banks' Complicity written in second person.
posted by Justinian at 1:56 AM on January 18, 2006


For a dystopian novel in second person, try Molly Zero. It's out of print, but your library may have/be able to get a copy. It was the first book I read written in second person, and it is pretty good. Even better, having read it allowed me to win an argument with my 8th grade English teacher, who maintained that it is not possible to write a novel in the second person. By the way - I loved Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas!
posted by acridrabbit at 4:39 AM on January 18, 2006


Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Haunted Mind" is written entirely in the second person.
posted by Prospero at 4:44 AM on January 18, 2006


As long as we're extending the question to television, the BBC comedy "Peep Show" is shot entirely from the perspective of the characters. It's a gimmick, but you stop noticing after a while because the show is freaking hilarious. Three series out in the UK, well worth importing (or searching your local torrent site for if you don't have a region-free dvd player).
posted by Gortuk at 4:46 AM on January 18, 2006


I recently read a novel titled Girls that was written mostly in second person narrative, in present tense. It worked, probably because it was composed of a series of short vignettes, many of which were contempletive or philosophical or pornographic. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the author, and the short title makes it virtually impossible to search for.
posted by alms at 5:10 AM on January 18, 2006


that's Channel 4 (genius) comedy Peep Show
posted by brilliantmistake at 5:18 AM on January 18, 2006


There are parts of Iain Banks' Complicity written in second person.

And that is why I couldn't get past the first ten pages. I love Banks, but gimmicks like that are just annoying if you're trying to read a good story.
posted by jaded at 5:39 AM on January 18, 2006


Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an amazing novel written entirely in the 2nd person, mostly in the form of letters from the main character to her sister and other relatives.
posted by junkbox at 6:08 AM on January 18, 2006


B.S. Johnson swicthes in and out of second-person in many of his works. I especially like Albert Angelo and Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry.
posted by youarenothere at 6:48 AM on January 18, 2006


alms, I think it was by Nic Kelman.

I've not read it but I think Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss is all second person.
posted by ninebelow at 7:06 AM on January 18, 2006


Frederick Barthelme's short story "Shopgirls" is second person, if I remember correctly.
posted by drobot at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2006


William Gibson's short story from "Burning Chrome" anthology, I think called "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" was largely in the 2nd person, about a complex high-tech sting to steal a scientist from another company.
posted by ykjay at 8:03 AM on January 18, 2006


With help from Ninebelow, here's an excerpt from Girls by Nic Kelman.
You were in Pusan.

When you flew in, the port was hidden by cloud. You couldn't see the city at all, only the tops of mountains. The man to the right of you, a Korean, said, "Ha! That's smog. Smog! Not so pretty now, huh? Smog! Ha-ha! Ha-ha! Smog!" He went on laughing to himself as he picked up his paper again and read some more. You were still working for that investment bank, were there to find out why a container ship was behind schedule. You had been told it would probably be necessary to make an example of someone, that you should determine who.

And when you landed, it was drizzling, grey. The whole city was grey. Built of concrete and iron, built for building. You couldn't see very far down the streets in that rain that was almost a mist. Through the haze the odd red or green punched - neons, traffic lights, trashcan fires. But that was all. On the way from the airport to the hotel and the next morning from the hotel to the office, you became completely disoriented. You tried to follow your route on the map your girlfriend had given you but it was useless. You didn't know where you were.
Continued here.
posted by alms at 8:47 AM on January 18, 2006


Oh yeah--the Girls are Pretty blog is written in the second person as well.
posted by Prospero at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2006


I'm not positive as I don't have my copy of it anymore...but I believe John Barth's short story Lost In The Fun House is 2nd person. If it's not, read it anyway as it's real good.
posted by nadawi at 9:23 AM on January 18, 2006


"Forever Overheard" bby David Foster Wallace is a good example of such a story, partly because Wallce does a good job of picking events (jumping off a high dive for the first time/one's 13th birthday) that average people are likely to relate to, which aids in getting the reader to play along.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:29 AM on January 18, 2006


Another shoutout for Iain Banks' "Complicity", which is one of my three favourite Banks books. The device is that the narrative moves into the second person whenever one of the numerous attacks or murders is being committed. Unlike "jaded" I thought it worked superbly because it moved you into another place for those incidents. It added a highly effective contrast between the two threads of the story. I recommend it.
posted by Decani at 10:05 AM on January 18, 2006


Lorrie Moore's short story collection, Self-Help, is written mostly in 2nd person (i.e. "How to Be an Other Woman," "How to Become a Writer," etc.) It's also brilliant.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:23 AM on January 18, 2006


Ron Butlin's The Sound of my Voice is entirely second-person, but also doesn't fall in to the usual trap of talking as if it's talking to the reader. Tricky to explain without a spoiler. It's dark, and brilliant.
posted by bonaldi at 10:26 AM on January 18, 2006


Ayn Rand's novel Anthem is, in my view, pretty crappy, but if memory serves, it's written in second-person.
posted by box at 11:34 AM on January 18, 2006


Aura, by Carlos Fuentes, is written in second person, and I found the reading experience terribly disconcerting. It felt rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure story with all of the decision branches removed. Maybe that was the point, come to think of it.
posted by cobra libre at 12:11 PM on January 18, 2006


While not 2nd person, the gimmick used in the film "memento" forced the character's flaw onto the viewer.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:40 PM on January 18, 2006


Another quasi - I forget the titles, but several of the old seasome street books have the reader as the protagonist, eg, on each page, grover implores you not to turn the page, and devises various schemes to disuade you, then gets mad at you when you do.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:43 PM on January 18, 2006


Albert Camus The Fall is one example. Someone else mentioned Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller... upthread (great book).
posted by wheat at 12:53 PM on January 18, 2006


The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman. The technique is most obvious at the beginning of the story.

And what about Wuthering Heights? The story is actually told to you by another character, who I think only shows up on the first page. (It's been awhile since I've read it.)
posted by luneray at 2:05 PM on January 18, 2006


Perhaps also Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Although the story isn't narrated by "you", the reader does choose the order in which to read the chapters, giving the reader to power to control the storytelling.
posted by luneray at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2006


-harlequin-, that was There's a Monster at the End of This Book (something like that) because grover forgets he's a monster. and he's at the end of the book.
posted by mdn at 2:31 PM on January 18, 2006


Maybe I'm just not thinking it through, but I suspect the only way for cinema to invoke a 2nd person narrative mode would be through voice over or on-screen text. The least disjunctive idea for a recognizable "normal" film that strictly adheres to the second person requirement would probably be a movie structured as a video-letter sent to an unnamed "you," positioning the audience (either as a group or, more likely, as a single individual) as the actual addressee. (The content of the video-letter could be recreations of what the writer thinks "you" have been doing to make it really count as 2nd person narrative, but with that we may have gone too far into gimmick. It would have to be brilliant).

(Here's The Monster at the end of this Book online as page images. It's still incredible. I think I'll go post this in the blue).
posted by nobody at 3:36 PM on January 18, 2006


There is also the one where Oscar The Grouch wants you to leave him alone :)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:57 PM on January 18, 2006


I actually own a hardcopy of There's A Monster At The End of This Book. Just got it a few months ago.

Ayn Rand's novel Anthem is, in my view, pretty crappy, but if memory serves, it's written in second-person.

I am not a big defender of Rand either, but Anthem is not written in second person. It's written in first person, but the narrator doesn't know the word "I," so refers to himself as "we."
posted by bingo at 8:23 PM on January 18, 2006


"First person" and "second person" refer to the pronouns used to by the narrator to describe the protagonist. As Nobody points out, if we are going to be literal, we can only apply these terms to movies that have voiceover narrators.

But from a metaphorical point of view, it's fair to think of the camera as the narrator. Looked at this way, shots in which the camera shows us what one of the characters is seeing (known as POV shots, for "point of view") could be interpreted as first person ("Here is what I am seeing") or second person ("here is what you would see if you were this character.")

The fact that a certain genre of videogames is known as "first-person shooters" rather than "second-person shooters" seems to suggest a widespread intuitive belief that POV shots are first- and not second-person.


Personally, I think "second person" is the most apt description for POV shots. I'd use "first-person" to describe films (with or without a narrator) where the audience only sees events when the protagonist is present (like The Sixth Sense or Ferris Bueller's Day Off.) "Third person," of course, is films where the audience gets to see everything--Syriana and Crash are two obvious recent examples. (If we were going to be a little more literal about it, I'd call this "third person omniscient"; in literature, it's possible to have a third-person narrative that stays focused exclusively on one person... one more reason why it's a little slippery to apply these terms to film.)

Anyway, whatever you call it, shooting a film exclusively from a character's POV is rare. In addition to The Lady In The Lake and Dark Passage, an IMDB keyword search also turns up Russian Ark, Strange Days, The Dark Past, The Legend of Alfred Packer, and a few first-person shooters. Of these, I've only seen Russian Ark, but I can confirm that the entire film is in one POV shot, and that characters routinely address the camera as if it were a person.
posted by yankeefog at 5:35 AM on January 19, 2006


Oh, and I meant to add that when Orson Welles first came out to Hollywood, before he decided to do Citizen Kane, he wanted to do an adaptation of Heart of Darkness shot entirely from the narrator's POV.
posted by yankeefog at 5:42 AM on January 19, 2006


Huh. If the Welles movie had been made, I wonder if Apocalypse Now never would have.
posted by nobody at 12:10 PM on January 19, 2006


I'd use "first-person" to describe films (with or without a narrator) where the audience only sees events when the protagonist is present (like The Sixth Sense or Ferris Bueller's Day Off.)

Not that anyone is reading this anymore, but Ferris Bueller's Day Off involves plenty of scenes that do not include the protagonist. Most notably scenes involving the sister and the principal, together and separately, as well as Ferris' mother.
posted by bingo at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2006


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